Harnack, Carl Gustav Adolf von (1851–1930)

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Carl Gustav Adolf von Harnack, the German church historian and theologian, was born at Dorpat (now Tartu) in Estonia, where his father, Theodosius Harnack, was a professor of practical theology at the German-dominated university. Carl Harnack studied at Dorpat and then at Leipzig, becoming a Privatdozent there in 1876. He held chairs at Giessen from 1879 and Marburg from 1886 before going, in 1888, to Berlin, where he was a professor until his retirement, in 1924. He died at Heidelberg.

Harnack has come to be regarded as the typical representative of liberal theology. Following Albrecht Ritschl and the members of his school, Harnack stressed the ethical teaching of Christianity and avoided the more speculative flights of theology, but he went further than his predecessors in the direction of an undogmatic, practical statement of the Christian faith. Harnack's appointment to the chair at Berlin was opposed by conservative elements in the Lutheran Church, but by the time he retired he had trained a whole generation of students in the ways of liberal theology and in what he believed to be the unprejudiced pursuit of theological truth. His last years were spent in opposing the nascent "dialectical theology" of the school of Karl Barth, which he saw as threatening the scientific character of the discipline.

The Problem of Dogma

The vigor with which Harnack advocated the cause of liberal theology was matched by his vast erudition. Few Protestant scholars have equaled his knowledge of early Christian history and literature. One of Harnack's major works, the monumental Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte (3 vols., Freiburg, 18861889; many subsequent eds. published at Tübingen; 3rd ed. translated as History of Dogma, 7 vols., London, 18941899), not only gives a detailed account of the history of Christian dogma, especially in the early formative centuries, but also expounds a definite thesis concerning the nature and development of this dogma.

As Harnack understood it, religion is primarily a practical affair and aims at the right ordering of life. In Christianity, the power of achieving a well-ordered or blessed life had its origin in Jesus Christ and the revelation of God that he brought. But although religion has this practical character, it also implies certain beliefs concerning God, man, and the world; the religious man seeks to make his beliefs explicit and to formulate them in propositions. This happens especially when a religious community comes into being and subscription to the basic beliefs of the community is made the condition of membershiphence the rise of dogma in the early church.

However, Harnack regarded this development as a perversion of the original teaching of Jesus, obscuring its essentially practical character and destroying its spontaneity. On the whole, he saw the history of Christian thought as one of deterioration, a falling away from the original truth rather than an unfolding of it. The process began when the primitive preachers made Jesus himself, as the supernatural Christ, the center of their message, rather than simply repeating Jesus' teaching about the kingdom of God, which Harnack understood as an ethical ideal. The transformation of Christianity into dogma accelerated in the Hellenistic world; the extreme case can be seen in the Gnostic sects, where the supposedly original gospel of Jesus was altogether absorbed into Hellenistic philosophy. With the Reformation an attempt was made to emancipate Christianity from dogma, but it was only partially successful, and dogma persisted into Protestantism.

The Essentials of Christianity

In a series of popular lectures, which attracted huge audiences at the university of Berlin in the winter of 1899/1900 and was subsequently published as Das Wesen des Christentums (Leipzig, 1900; translated as What Is Christianity?, London, 1901), Harnack expounded what he believed to be the core of the Christian religion, set free from the encrustations of dogma that had been laid down through the centuries. The core is to be reached by penetrating back to the teaching of Jesus himself, and Harnack represented this teaching as proclaiming the fatherhood of God, the infinite worth of the human soul, and the ethical ideal of the kingdom of God. The supposedly original gospel of Jesus is also claimed to be the only version of Christianity that can make sense for modern minds, since it is free from theological and metaphysical mystifications.

Harnack's views once commanded a wide following, but this, however, has declined sharply in more recent times, owing to the criticism of such scholars as Alfred Loisy, Albert Schweitzer, and Karl Barth.

See also Barth, Karl; Liberalism; Loisy, Alfred; Reformation; Ritschl, Albrecht Benjamin.


additional works by harnack

Harnack's literary output was immense, consisting not only of books and articles but also of critical editions of many early religious documents. In addition to the two books mentioned in this article, the following are important:

Das apostolische Glaubensbekenntnis. Berlin, 1892. Translated as The Apostles' Creed. London: A. and C. Black, 1901.

Die Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur bis Eusebius. 2 vols. Leipzig, 18931904.

Beiträge zur Einleitung in das Neue Testament. 4 vols. Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 19061911. Translations of parts of this work: Luke the Physician. London: Williams and Norgate, 1907. The Sayings of Jesus. London, 1908. The Acts of the Apostles. London, 1909.

Entstehung und Entwicklung der Kirchenverfassung und des Kirchenrechts in den zwei ersten Jahrhunderten. Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1910. Translated as The Constitution and Law of the Church in the First Two Centuries. London, 1910.

Marcion. Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1921.

Ausgewählte Reden und Aufsätze. Berlin, 1951.

Die Mission und Ausbreitung des Christentums in den ersten drei Jahrhunderten. 4th ed., Wiesbaden: VMA-Verlag, 1965.

The Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries. Edited and translated by James Moffatt. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press 1972.

History of Dogma. Gloucester, MA: P. Smith, 1976.

Das Wesen des Christentums. Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus Mohn, 1977.

Adolf Harnacks Konflikt mit der Kirche: Weg-Stationen zum "Wesen des Christentums". Edited by Karl H. Neufeld. Innsbruck: Tyrolia, 1979.

Militia Christi: The Christian Religion and the Military in the First Three Centuries. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981.

What Is Christianity?. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.

Moderne Theologie: Der Briefwechsel Adolf von Harnack, Christoph Ernst Luthardt, 18781897. Neukirchen-Vluyn, Germany: Neukirchener Verlag, 1996.

Adolf von Harnack: Christentum, Wissenschaft und Gesellschaft: Wissenschaftliches Symposion aus Anlass des 150. Geburtstages. Edited by Kurt Nowak, et al. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2003.

Monasticism: Its Ideals and History; and, The Confessions of St. Augustine: Two Lectures. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2004.

works on harnack

Zahn-Harnack, Agnes von. Adolf von Harnack. Berlin: H. Bott, 1936. The standard biography of Harnack. See also her article on Harnack in Die grossen Deutschen, Vol. IV, 255266. Berlin: Propyläen, 1957.

John Macquarrie (1967)